Architecture

Sydney Studio

April 9, 2009

A recent Sydney project by Undercurrent Architects employs digital modelling and file-to-factory techniques to produce a formally exuberant building that is anything but mass produced.

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Sydney’s northern beaches are an enviable place for an architect to have a commission. Dense vegetation clings to undulating sandstone topography that offers a variety of spectacular ocean views – a truly picturesque place to create a dream project. There are some drawbacks to working in this environment. Beyond the notoriously slow approvals process and high building costs is the slightly intimidating presence of a number of internationally lauded works by, and home to, some of Sydney’s most respected architects. Armed with a 6B pencil, drawing board and setsquare they have dedicated a life’s work to capturing the spirit of the landscape in architectural form. Highly refined Miesian pavilions with skillion roofs and operable louvres are sprinkled through this region; their feathered edges touch the earth lightly and can be adjusted to open to sun, wind and the all-important view.

It is too easy to dismiss a project on first impressions or from a reading in the glossy pages of a magazine. At first glance, this small pavilion designed and built by London-based Australian Didier Ryan of Undercurrent Architects seems to be little more than an indulgent form-making exercise. Perched on the edge of an established ‘European’ garden, where manicured lawn meets rogue native grasses, this mysterious building is almost pure folly. Its function is both multiple and unclear. It can be used for anything: yoga, art, entertainment, office. Passers-by ask, “What is it?” To which there is no specific answer. Its twisted gnarled form appears in the landscape as if a more conventional structure had been partially melted, then refurbished. It has no obvious structural logic, no clear honest expression of load paths. One cannot help but question why the double curved glass is even required. The edges are thick, the base heavy. Form has not (apparently) followed function and initially I wonder, is this sculpture or architecture? As I said these are my first reactions; there is more to this work than meets the eye.

Some would argue that a work of architecture needs no explanation. It is only after lengthy discussions on-site with the architect that the rationale behind the exuberant form is revealed. The more I ponder the building later the more it makes sense, its contribution to architectural discourse evident. Hence some explanation is required here. Ryan was educated at the University of Sydney, where he was no doubt lectured by some of the aforementioned architects of repute. In describing his ambitions for the site and passion for the landscape it is clear that the legacy of his educators is alive and well. Ryan is equally committed to capturing the spirit of place.

Armed with Internet Explorer, Google Earth, AutoCAD, Rhino, Catia, Staad along with the more traditional tools of felt-tip pen and cardboard model, the architect has produced a personal interpretation of the local bushland setting that seems far removed from an orthogonal modernist box. The program is simple; an existing garage excavated into the side of a rocky outcrop has been refurbished with a new garden pavilion above.

The project’s signature feature is a sinuous ‘tree-column’ that forms the primary structure of the upper level. Large tubular steel members spring up from the floor then randomly branch off, twisting their way across the underside of the ceiling to curve down and meet a sandstone perimeter wall.

While poetic intent is appreciated, this metaphoric reference to the Angophora trees that dominate the rugged sandstone outcrops adjacent to the site is perhaps a little too literal. Nonetheless the space beneath is as dynamic as the view it captures.

The sandstone used to line the garage and parts of the upper level is from two rather interesting sources. The interior is lined with stone from the original garage that was probably brought to site in the 1950s, sourced from stables at Government House. It still has traces of paint and tar. The remainder of the stone is known as ‘Native Cat’, quarried on-site in similar proportions to the convict hewn blocks. Six steel ‘leaves’ rest on this structure to form the roof, a slither of glazing between each layer allows light to enter the space at varying times – not unlike the foliage of the Angophora. The overhang of the leaves at the perimeter is calibrated so as to shade the glass below from direct sunlight during the hotter months of the year. The utilitarian plan is wrapped in double curved glass, which acts to blur and abstract reflections. This is particularly evident at night where planar glazing would normally produce a mirror-like effect.

The design process that was employed here typifies a generation of architects exploring the new forms made possible by digital technologies. The forms generated through these processes are at present unfamiliar to mainstream consumers, and it is little wonder the project has undergone scrutiny from neighbours. It is quite possibly the first time such technologies have been deployed in this area of Sydney, and in that respect it is groundbreaking. While Ryan does not exhibit an overt interest in scripting or generative components he is adamant that architects should exploit every possible tool available to pursue an architectural idea. He notes, “We aimed for a correlation between hand ‘looseness’ and computer ‘specificness’ you get hints of each impressed into the end building.”

Initial studies were carried out by Ryan and his collaborators in Australia, the UK and Spain using Rhino to generate the complex geometries. These were later tested in what the architect describes as some rather crude cardboard models. Early concepts featured a greater number of leaf elements for the roof that shared no similarities in geometry. In refining the scheme Ryan seems to have taken clues from Utzon, where the six leaves are segments from a singular spherical geometry that have been manipulated at their edges to suit their particular orientation.

Later in the design process, the digital model was exported back and forth between Staada and Catia for structural analysis by engineers Elliott Wood Partnership in the UK. The ‘leaves’ were fabricated by a shipbuilding company in China, the only people Ryan could find to fabricate these complex forms directly from the digital model. The complex double curved glass is a repetition of two moulds flipped and rotated to create the undulating façade. Like the structure, the façade was also fabricated in China – the digital modelling process allowing the architect and fabricator to determine how the various pieces could be sized to fit into a standard shipping container and assembled on-site by Ryan himself and a team of local tradesmen. Like the early works of Gropius and Corbusier this experimental project has some minor flaws in its execution. It is not a fetishised piece of craft, but rather an inhabited industrial relic. The latter is a quality with which Ryan is particularly happy.

There are undeniable parallels between the modernists’ championing of new technology in design and production and the revolution we are witnessing in architecture schools, offices, factories and building sites across the world. It is rather simplistic to say that the current digital revolution is modernism revisited – the social and political landscape is different, and there are questions surrounding authorship and new methods of international collaboration in architecture that would cast doubt on this assertion. Whether modernism revisited, or a truly new era of architectural conception, the question becomes why one would choose one technique over another… or why not. Perhaps the more relevant question is, does it matter?

  • Chen February 23rd, 2011 4:52 am

    great project


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